University of Zurich
Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
We work on evolution and innovation on all levels of biological organization, from genes and genomes, to biological networks and whole organisms as well as their communities.
One question we study regards the origins of evolutionary innovations. Biologists know many fascinating examples of evolutionary innovations, and they know that natural selection can preserve an innovation once it has originated. However, they know little about the principles that allow innovations to originate in the first place. To identify such principles, we study three classes of systems that are behind many, if not all evolutionary innovations. These are metabolic networks, regulatory circuits, as well as protein and RNA macromolecules. We analyze how new traits originate in these systems, and search for common principles that can lead to a systematic understanding of innovation.
A second, related research topic regards the relationship between genotype and phenotype. Between the lower, genetic level of biological organization and the higher level of organisms, a huge gap in our knowledge exists. We do not know how genotypic change translates into phenotypic change. One of our goals is to help fill this gap. To do so, we study the evolution of biological networks, which form a bridge between genotype and phenotype. How do these networks form their phenotypes? How did they evolve? How do their phenotypes change in different environments and after mutations? How robust are these networks to genetic change? How does their robustness affect the ability to create new phenotypes? These are some of the questions we ask.
A third class of topics revolves around genome evolution. Do gene duplications merely cause a passive expansion of genome size, are they an engine of innovation, or merely a source of robustness against mutations? Are transposable elements really only parasites inside cells, the ultimate selfish genes, or do they provide benefits to their hosts? How does natural selection shape genes in the human genome and in other genomes?
Our work uses comparative analysis of genomic data, laboratory evolution experiments and mathematical modeling. We also develop a variety of bioinformatics tools to help us take advantage of a torrent of data in genomics and structural biology.
We are members of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics.